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What shape the highway takes will depend to some extent on who ends up building it. The cable companies tend to think in terms of entertaining mass audiences. Their emphasis is on expanded channels, video on demand and video- shopping networks. They admit the possibility of more special-interest programming such as MTV, the Discovery Channel and Black Entertainment Television but only if they can be convinced that the demographics are sufficiently attractive.
The phone companies, with their background in point-to-point switching, tend to focus on connectivity and anything that will rack up message units. They emphasize services that will generate a lot of two-way traffic, such as video phones, video conferencing and long-distance access to libraries.
The computer users, and some enthusiasts within the Clinton Administration, tend to see the information highway as a glorified extension of computer bulletin boards. Vice President Gore talks about making it possible for a schoolchild in Arkansas to have access to a book stored on a computer in the Library of Congress or take a course at a distant college. Mitch Kapor, co- founder of a computer watchdog group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wants the superhighway to do for video what computer bulletin boards did for print make it easy for everyone to publish ideas to an audience eager to respond in kind. He envisions a nation of leisure-time video broadcasters, each posting his creations on a huge nationwide video bulletin board.
The technology makes all these things possible. It's easy to imagine families exchanging video Christmas cards. Or high school students shopping for a college by exploring each campus interactive video. Or elementary schools making videos of the school play available to every parent who missed it.
It's even easier to picture the information highway being exploited to make a lot of money. The powers that be in entertainment and programming have their eyes on the $4 billion spent each year on video games, the $12 billion on video rentals, the $65 billion on residential telephone service, the $70 billion on catalog shopping. They are eager to find out how much customers will shell out to see last night's Seinfeld or the latest Spielberg. They are exploring the market for addictive video games and trying to figure out how much they can charge for each minute of play. It won't be long before someone begins using video phones for the multimedia equivalent of "dial-a-porn" telephone-sex lines. All these services can be delivered easily and efficiently by the information highway, and they can be backed up by a threat with real teeth. As TCI chairman John Malone puts it, "If you don't pay your bill, we'll turn off your television."
In the end, how the highway develops and what sort of traffic it bears will depend to a large extent on consumers. As the system unfolds, the companies supplying hardware and programming will be watching to see which services early users favor. If they watch a lot of news, documentaries and special- interest programming, those offerings will expand. If video on demand is a huge money-maker, that is what will grow. If video bulletin boards or teleconferencing, or interactive Yellow Pages, or electronic town meetings are hot, those services too will thrive and spread.
We will in effect be voting with our remote controls. If we don't like what we see or if the tolls are too high the electronic superhighway could lead to a dead end. Or it could offer us more much more of what we already have. Just as likely, it could veer off in surprising directions and take us places we've never imagined.